How To Stop Being a Snob, Part 1: Snobbery, Disgust, and Evolution

Have you ever been a snob about something?

I was the biggest music snob in high school. In fact, I hated some forms of music so much that I would physically cringe and try to leave the room when I heard music I hated (example: the country-rap duo Florida-Georgia Line).

But you know the feeling, whether you’re a snob about food or clothes or politics or religion or something else. You know that snobbishness isn’t just dislike. It’s contempt, combined combined with a strong desire to not be “contaminated”by the things you hold in contempt. For instance, I had *no* desire to be associated with the music of said country-rap duo, for reasons that should be obvious.

I’ve become a lot more tolerant (if not accepting) of different music styles since those days. In fact, I think it was really dumb to let something like music bother me so much. But it’s interesting to look back. What motivated that kind of strong response to something as mundane as music?

I have a theory (and probably someone has thought of this before) that snobbery is linked to the “disgust impulse” in humans. According to people who know things, disgust is an evolved behavior that helps us avoid actual contamination by microbes that could kill us. See what moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt says in The Righteous Mind:

“The emotion of disgust evolved initially to optimize responses to the omnivore’s dilemma. Individuals who had a properly calibrated sense of disgust were able to consume more calories than their overly disgustable cousins while consuming fewer dangerous microbes than their insufficiently disgustable cousins.”

So maybe snobbery is just a twist on this useful evolutionary characteristic. The desire to be a snob is in large part a desire to be “clean” of associations with undesirable things, usually from a fear of social judgment.

The problem is that country-rap music and other contemptible things that we snobs dislike are not microbes, and they are not going to kill us.

If country-rap music was the only thing snobbery kept us from “appreciating,” then it might not be a problem. But snobbery, like disgust, tends to metastasize into contempt for more and more things. I found myself incapable of enjoying lots of decent music because I was so intent on sonic purity in my tunes. As a result, I enjoyed social music less.  The same kind of snobbish desire for purity can keep anyone from enjoying any number of good things in life: food made at food trucks, clothes from Goodwill, Taylor Swift, cute dog pictures, amateur art, what have you.

Caring about quality is good, but snobbery is no way to live. Tomorrow we’ll look at one way to transcend the snobbish impulse.


Intellectual Credit: Jonathan Haidt and The Righteous Mind, which I started a year or two ago now but still haven’t finished.

Photo by Daniel Gregoire on Unsplash

James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.